Sunday People in £100,000 payout over use of information on teacher's stolen mobile phone

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The Sunday People is facing a £100,000 costs and damages payout after using information from an apparently stolen mobile phone to seek to expose an affair between a primary school teacher and a footballer.

It had been facing legals costs of £241,817, but this bill from the woman’s lawyers (who acted on a no-win, no fee basis) was reduced by the High Court after publisher Mirror Group Newspapers argued it was disproportionate.

The case has come to light in a legal judgement setting out the reasons behind the new costs award of £83,954.80.

The claimant was awarded damages of £20,000 for breach of privacy.

The teacher, who was granted anonymity by the court, has no media profile and between 2008 and 2011 she had a relationship with a successful Premier League footballer. The relationship was only known to a small circle of friends and family.

The judgment states that in March 2011 the woman lost her mobile phone.

The Sunday People was then approached by a source who claimed to be in contact with the person who had the woman’s phone and who revealed her relationship with the footballer.

An assistant editor of the People sent a freelance journalist to the woman’s home to make enquiries about her relationship with the footballer.

This led to a complaint to the People by the woman’s father and, on 3 May 2011, and the return of her phone. She said that all data had been deleted from the device before it was returned.

In March 2013 the woman instructed solicitors Atikins Thomson and they took the case on a conditional fee agreement (no win, no fee).

She decided to take legal action after seeing publicity around a similar case. No information taken from her phone was published.

She claimed an injunction to prevent The People publishing the information taken from her phone, damages and the return of any confidential information.

On 14 July 2014, MGN (part of Trinity Mirror) agreed to pay the claimant £20,000 damages and her costs.

The initial legal costs bill came in at £241,917 which included success fee bonuses of 60 per cent on solicitors’ costs, 75 per cent bonuses for two barristers and the £61,480 cost of insurance policy against losing.

Success fees compensate lawyers for the risk of getting nothing if they lose the case. The insurance premium costs the claimant nothing, as it also insures them against having to pay for the policy in the event that they lose the case.

MGN argued that the fees were disproportionate to the damages and in breach of its right to Freedom of Expression under the Human Rights Act.

Judge master Gordon-Saker decided that the legal fees were around double what they should have been. He also reduced the success fee uplift to 33 per cent.

He reduced the fees in he light of changes to the Civil Procedure Rules brought in on 1 April 2013 which seek to provide access to justice for claimants in privacy and lbel cases, but at a more proportionate cost.

These rules state that the costs awarded must “bear a reasonable relationship to the sums at issue in the proceedings”.

He said this was not “a particularly complex case” and noted that it was “concluded at an early stage” – a year after proceedings were issued. But he described MGN’s behaviour as “reprehensible”.

He said the size of the insurance premium was did not “bear a reasonable relationship to the claim”, given that MGN “made substantial admissions in its defence” and the prospect of winning was “significantly in excess of 50/50”.

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